Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Growing threat of extreme right-wing violence

By Peter Bergen, CNN National Security Analyst, and Jennifer Rowland, Special to CNN
updated 9:02 PM EDT, Thu April 4, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Authors: Last five years have seen more indicted in extremist violence
  • They say the threats have grown from domestic sources, particularly the right wing
  • Jihadist groups no longer make up the greater threat, they say
  • Authors: It's about time for politicians to notice the shifting threat

Editor's note: Peter Bergen is CNN's national security analyst, the author of "Manhunt: The Ten-Year Search for bin Laden -- From 9/11 to Abbottabad" and a director at the New America Foundation. Jennifer Rowland is a program associate at the New America Foundation.

(CNN) -- On the evening of March 19, Tom Clements, the director of Colorado's prison system, was shot and killed when he answered the door of his home near Colorado Springs.

The slaying sparked a police chase that ended a few days later in Texas, with authorities finally killing the suspect, 28-year-old Evan Ebel, in a shootout. It was soon discovered that Ebel had been part of a violent white supremacist gang during the eight years he spent in Colorado prisons.

Peter Bergen
Peter Bergen

Clements was the latest victim of increasingly active violent right-wing extremists. While American politicians and the U.S. public continue to focus on the threat from jihadist extremists, there seems to be too little awareness that this domestic form of political violence is a growing problem at home.

From 2002 to 2007, only nine right-wing extremists were indicted for their roles in politically motivated murders and other types of ideologically motivated violent assaults. But between 2008 and 2012, the number mushroomed to 53, according to data collected by the New America Foundation. (Click on chart on the left for the data.)

 

Fifteen right-wing extremists were indicted in 2012 -- including six who were involved in a militia in Georgia that accumulated weapons, plotted attacks on the government and murdered a young U.S. Army soldier and his 17-year-old girlfriend, who they suspected were planning to rat out the group to authorities. Seven claimed membership in the anti-government Sovereign Citizens movement and allegedly murdered two policemen in Louisiana. And two had gone on a murderous rampage the previous year, killing four people before they were arrested in California, where they told police they were on their "way to Sacramento to kill more Jews."

By comparison, in 2012, only six people who subscribed to al Qaeda's ideology were indicted on terrorism-related charges in the United States, confirming the trend of the past four years, which is a sharp decline in such cases that has been documented by the authors in previous pieces for CNN.com.

It's about time that politicians who are quick to talk about the threat posed by al Qaeda began paying attention to the shifting nature of the threats.

In comparing the two sources of domestic terrorism, it's striking that the jihadists charged with crimes were much less likely to have actually carried out a violent attack before they were arrested.

According to data gathered by the New America Foundation, 207 people motivated by al Qaeda's ideology of violence against American targets have been indicted in the U.S. on terrorism-related charges since 9/11. But only about 5% of those were indicted for their roles in violent incidents, whereas of the 139 right-wing militants indicted in the United States since 9/11, just under half had engaged in a violent attack before they were arrested.

Widow: Error won't bring my husband back
Neighbor: Colorado suspect always angry

The word "terrorism" is not often used in the charges leveled against these right-wing militants, simply because laws in the United States primarily define terrorism as the work of a designated foreign terrorist group.

But the New America data shows that domestic terrorists motivated by non-jihadist ideologies now pose a similar or even greater threat than those who admire al Qaeda. We define non-jihadist terrorists to be those who carry out or aspire to carry out acts of politically motivated violence, and who fall into the following categories: right-wing extremists who oppose the government, subscribe to a neo-Nazi ideology, or oppose homosexuality or abortion; left-wing extremists; violent animal rights activists; and violent environmental activists.

Over the past several years, acts or plots of non-jihadist terrorism have derived almost entirely from right-wing extremists like the soldiers' militia in Georgia and the anti-government group in Louisiana. Of the 54 non-jihadist terrorists indicted between 2010 and 2012, 47 were right-wing extremists.

Seven were leftists or animal rights extremists. For instance, three were participants in Occupy Chicago, a leftist political movement, and were indicted on terrorism charges last June for plotting to throw Molotov cocktails at President Barack Obama and other officials during a NATO summit in Chicago. Their lawyers say an undercover government agent had urged them to plot the attacks and build the firebombs.

Since 9/11, at least 29 people living in the United States have been killed by right-wing extremists, while 17 have been killed by jihadist extremists, the majority of whom died in one incident: the 2009 massacre at Fort Hood, Texas. Of course, this story would be much different if al Qaeda recruit Umar Farouk AbdulMutallab had detonated a bomb hidden in his underwear aboard Northwest Flight 253 on Christmas Day 2009.

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



But it would also be much different if city workers hadn't spotted a suspicious backpack left on the route of a Martin Luther King Jr. parade in Spokane, Washington, in January 2011, in which white supremacist Kevin Harpham had hidden a bomb packed with fishing weights coated in rat poison. Or if police hadn't discovered a napalm bomb and several other live, wired explosives in the suburban Cleveland home of right-wing extremist Matthew Fairfield in April 2010.

And of all the people indicted on terrorism charges in the United States since 9/11, no jihadist suspect has ever acquired or attempted to acquire chemical, biological or radiological weapons, while at least 11 right- and left-wing terrorists either obtained such materials or made serious attempts to do so.

In 2003, federal agents discovered "nearly two pounds of a cyanide compound and other chemicals that could create enough poisonous gas to kill everyone inside a space as large as a big-chain bookstore or a small-town civic center" at the home of Judith Bruey and her husband, William Krar, according to an Associated Press report. Alongside the arsenal of chemical weapons were about 60 pipe bombs, several machine guns, remote-controlled bombs disguised as briefcases, and anti-Semitic, anti-black, and anti-government literature, the report said.

Although the feds had been tracking Bruey and Krar in the mid-90s, their case fell through the cracks when the events of 9/11 turned law enforcement's attention to jihadist terrorism. The couple was only found out when Krar tried to mail a package of counterfeit birth certificates to an anti-government militia member in New Jersey, but got the address wrong. That mistake resulted in a tip to local police.

A report from the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point released in January found that, "In the last few years, and especially since 2007, there has been a dramatic rise in the number of attacks and violent plots originating from people and groups who self-identify with the far-right of American politics."

In a report that was much criticized at the time, the Department of Homeland Security predicted in 2009 that the nation's election the previous year of its first black president, along with a severe economic downturn that created disenchantment with the government among poorer populations, had the potential to radicalize greater numbers of right-wing terrorists. The same report warned that increasing numbers of returning military veterans as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan wind down provided those on the far right with a vulnerable population to target for radicalization.

The New America Foundation data shows that about 20% of the right-wing extremists indicted since 9/11 had spent time in the military.

The New America data supports the Department of Homeland Security's assessment of the growing threat of right-wing extremist groups. American politicians and the public should become more aware of the fact that while the threat from al Qaeda-inspired terrorists is much diminished at home, the threat from right-wing militants continues to rise.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

David Sterman assisted with research for this report.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 3:50 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016.
updated 4:52 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
updated 12:29 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider say a YouTube video apparently posted by ISIS seems to show that the group has a surveillance drone, highlighting a new reality: Terrorist groups have technology once only used by states
updated 5:04 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
updated 5:45 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
John Bare says the Ice Bucket Challenge signals a new kind of activism and peer-to-peer fund-raising.
updated 8:31 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
James Dawes says calling ISIS evil over and over again could very well make it harder to stop them.
updated 9:05 PM EDT, Sat August 23, 2014
As the inquiry into the shooting of Michael Brown continues, critics question the prosecutor's impartiality.
updated 6:47 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
Newt Gingrich says it's troubling that a vicious group like ISIS can recruit so many young men from Britain.
updated 10:50 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
David Weinberger says Twitter and other social networks have been vested with a responsibility, and a trust, they did not ask for.
updated 7:03 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
John Inazu says the slogan "We are Ferguson" is meant to express empathy and solidarity. It's not true: Not all of us live in those circumstances. But we all made them.
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says he learned that the territory ISIS wants to control is amazingly complex.
updated 3:51 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Cerue Garlo says Liberia is desperate for help amid a Ebola outbreak that has touched every aspect of life.
updated 1:42 PM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Eric Liu says Republicans who want to restrict voting may win now, but the party will suffer in the long term.
updated 11:38 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Jay Parini: Jesus, Pope and now researchers agree: Wealth decreases our ability to sympathize with the poor.
updated 8:00 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Judy Melinek offers a medical examiner's perspective on what happens when police kill people like Michael Brown.
updated 6:03 PM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
updated 5:52 PM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
Ruben Navarrette notes that this fall, minority students will outnumber white students at America's public schools.
updated 5:21 PM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
Humans have driven to extinction four marine mammal species in modern times. As you read this, we are on the brink of losing the fifth, write three experts.
updated 4:06 PM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
Pepper Schwartz asks why young women are so entranced with Kardashian, who's putting together a 352-page book of selfies
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT